“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ”
Clearly, to judge by the key vocabulary surrounding Brexit, you can.
Diplomatic clairvoyants are already pondering the tea leaves over what happens if no free trade treaty, not even a partial one, is reached between the EU and the UK after Brexit. In that instance, the modern global default will kick in. The UK would be left trading with EU member states on the basis of what’s usually called WTO terms – or more properly, Most Favoured Nation (MFN) treatment.
And it is here that Project Fear retains its tightest grip yet on the public. WTO is described in post-apocalyptic terms. Prestidigitators summon up images of traffic scenes reminiscent of Dunkirk, with hauliers stacked up back to Coventry and businessmen denuding rain forests with their out-trays of compliance forms. Insert into that context ministers saying they are happy with “WTO terms” without expressing quite what they mean, and panic sets in.
These jitters are badly misfounded.
Let’s start with the basics. Tariffs are a fraction of they were when we were first driven towards the EEC decades ago, though they are still a critical negotiating point for some important sectors. Quotas may be more of a subjective threat. Both are of course also subject to the deterrent of reciprocation.
Clarity here is essential. What people forget is that what are referred to as “WTO terms” are accompanied by a range of other agreements that build on them and further facilitate trade.
There will be no default to simple “WTO membership” terms between the UK and the EU unless one of two things happens: either a trade war breaks out, and no deal on anything at all is reached; or the Department for Exiting the EU engages in an Animal House-style party for 24 months, and declines to leave the building.
Both are unlikely prospects.
In this doom-laden context, we also hear a lot of talk about “cliff-edges”. This precipitous metaphor instils fear – as it is intended to. But the reality of what will now happen in these negotiations is more akin to a march down the road into Dover port than a vertiginous tumble down the White Cliffs of Dover.
Even if there is no deal on any tariff or quota – highly improbable even if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister – those very non-tariff barriers that provoke such fevered nightmares will be subject to talks, and what emerges from these would form separate deals.
Yes, these are complex areas for negotiation, and involve technical fields that will demand a lot of work: but the UK has a massive head start on any other country attempting it. Here’s why.
The first important reality is that the key obstacle to any country reaching any trade agreement with the EU lies in its management and policing. But with Brexit, the negotiating parties already start with the key boxes ticked. Newton’s First Law of Motion works in our favour, maintaining momentum.
Basically, the UK already begins from the point of compliance over EU exports. But it also critically starts from a position of recognition towards those who check that compliance. This covers both those that certify standards on behalf of government (say, veterinary inspectors checking for Newcastle disease in poultry); and those organisations that check standards within the private sector (such as the nine bodies accredited to monitor what counts as organic farming). Maintaining that accreditation is a different ball game than seeking to win it.
Other factors also help to mitigate any risk of recognised conformity assessment not being carried across. Quite apart, of course, from the threat of reciprocation, it helps on a practical level that the listing of monitoring authorities is not simply in the gift of the European Commission.
There is a blinding kaleidoscope of professional bodies that have converged into their own stand-alone international pyramids. These generate their own benchmarks and professional certification – and have been doing so since the last century, when Sir Joseph Whitworth created an accepted standard for screw threads, and indeed much earlier.
Where states themselves play a greater role, which is particularly in areas involving consumer safety, it also helps that national standards bodies are recognised through international and not EU agreements. One key institution here is the International Accreditation Forum, of which the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) is a member. UKAS is also our member at the regional level at European Accreditation (EA). Its work ensures that conformity assessment is trusted abroad when it has been been signed off by the relevant authority.
To take just the EA, the EA multi-lateral agreement (MLA) is one between members to mutually recognise each others’ certification. The UK, as an existing member, will not now have to leap over the lofty hurdle of evaluation after Brexit – it starts out recognised as compliant with ISO/IEC 17011, the internationally recognised standard for accreditation bodies.
On leaving the EU, the challenge for the UK here becomes more simply one of determining its new level of association. As Montenegro and Switzerland are full members while Azerbaijan and Palestine have been able to gain associate member status, getting a deal should not be beyond the realms of possibility.
There are many other European Standards bodies lying outside the EU’s remit. The European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation (CENELEC) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) are even now defined through an EU regulation as the providers of European standards in general, technical and electronic areas, having been feeding into the system for over 30 years. Or, again, we could turn to the World Standards Cooperation, uniting the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission), ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) and the ITU (International Telecommunication Union).
Whether one digs into international standards setting bodies (ISSBs) covering for example food safety, or those relevant to the IMF, the same story repeats time and time again. It helps Brexit planners that the EU is not, despite common misconceptions, really at the top of the regulatory food chain. (Those wanting to dig deeper can find a study on how laws on car safety glass are made, in ganglion-shattering detail, here – spoiler alert: the EU and then Whitehall largely just gold-plate for domestic producers).
If the UK’s starting point is that the necessary rules are already in play, system checks are compliant, and the inspection system itself is recognised as being of the right standard, it becomes a vastly easier prospect and one of seeking to agree to maintain that certification. The question then becomes more one of managing regulatory divergence over time: an entirely different prospect and certainly not without its issues, but not an instant plummet off the Cliffs of Moher.
An important point is that deals are reached with the EU to remove friction as a matter of course. EU membership is not a prerequisite for it to happen. Nor does any arrangement need to be glued into some comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, or even just a provisional FTA that just covers what can be agreed on within the two-year negotiation timeframe. Separate agreements can be made to remove specific, thematic or sectoral barriers, just as they are regularly done in EU bilaterals. Examples between the EU and the US include the 2006 wine agreement, the 1999 agreement on sanitary protection over animals and animal products, the 1998 mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment, and so on. Others implement multilaterals agreed in different fora.
Those arguing that a cliff edge can’t be avoided also fail to recognise the wide range of other types of treaty deal, short of an FTA, that the EU has reached – you can count 42 models just using the official terminology, and there’s a more in-depth study here.
Theresa May’s Article 50 letter itself adds another telling element. It calls for a “deep and special partnership”, as the EU’s “closest friend and neighbour”. It injects this phrase no fewer than four times in six pages. This carries strong echoes of article 8.1 of the Lisbon Treaty, that authorises the EU to “develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation.” In so doing, it reminds the EU negotiators that treaty authorisation already exists to agree mutually advantageous terms to overcome such barriers.
So what this means is that there is no such thing as minimalist “WTO terms” on the cards, and there is no prospect of a “cliff edge”. Both are a creepy fiction worthy of M.R. James. But language is important and different groups do apply it in unhelpfully different ways. When Brexiteers talk about a “WTO” deal, they tend to mean “WTO plus duffle coat and hat and boots”; when Remainers recirculate the vocabulary, they interpret it as “WTO in underwear”. Until the vocabulary is fixed, that confusion will remain. As I doubt certain Remainers want to remove that uncertainty and fear, it falls to those of us who want to Leave to be clearer in our diction.
Let’s get real. The genuine default in practice lies somewhere between the wider US (pre-TTIP) and Canadian (TIEA, or pre-CETA) levels of arrangement. It does not mean the UK defaults to Zimbabwean access terms less the special beef quota, which is what barebones WTO terms really means.
As models go, the default works. While not without many problems, even that option is better than the current EU terms, given the UK’s low level of integration into the continental economy and our preference to avoid regulatory burdens. But for a really good deal, trust in each others’ standards and inspectorates and licensing authorities is key. An agreement based on such prospects is also within the grasp of reasonable men.
The prospect that civil servants must now be steered away from is the obsession of dashing towards an FTA at any price, without ever actually costing the default alternative. That was the mistake that David Cameron’s team made during his renegotiation, repeating assumptions long latent in Whitehall since the complete buy-in to EU membership.
There must be no abject surrender of our fishermen, our compatriots in Gibraltar and other overseas territories, our taxpayers contributing to the EU budget, or our businessmen remaining universally subject to the EU’s legislative burden.
“So close was the fight, that they turned and bent and shattered their spears from the points to the hilts. So close was the fight, that the Bocanachs and Bananachs and the witches of the valley screamed from the rims of their shields and from the hilts of their swords.”
So tells Lady Gregory of the duel between Cuchulain and Ferdiad. So, too, might many in this country now fear the Brexit talks will develop, a bitter conflict inevitably ending in wrack and woe.
But such fears, on wary review, largely turn out to be as mythical as the Sidhe – the female spirits of Irish mythology.